Led Zeppelin Fans Can Breathe Easy Knowing The Stairway To Heaven Riff Wasn’t Copied
The music industry isn’t immune to lawsuits of copyright and stolen material. As much as the rest of us love making shapes on the dance floor to our favourite songs, a mere riff can be the difference between a club banger or a song destined for the courtroom and complaints of plagiarism. Lizzo was accused of stealing lyrics, Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” came under fire from an unknown singer-songwriter, Katy Perry apparently copied a Christian rap song, and even Mark Ronson was accused of plagiarising “Uptown Funk”. But in one of the longest-running copyright cases, Led Zeppelin battled copyright infringement for the riff of their 1971 hit, “Stairway To Heaven”.
The British rock legends were accused in 2014 of copying the chord sequence of the song from “Taurus”, a song by the US band Spirit which was written in 1968, three years before “Stairway to Heaven”. Guitarist Jimmy Page was sued, along with band members Robert Plant and John Paul Jones, who testified in 2016 that the chord sequence in question had “been around forever.”
But according to the allegations from Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, when the bands began playing together, Page may have written the riff after hearing “Taurus” live. When the case went to trial in 2016, the jury rejected the claim at the time and decided the tracks were “not intrinsically similar.”
But in 2018, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals decided the trial judge had made a series of errors and ordered a new hearing. Thankfully, fans of Led Zeppelin can breathe a sigh of relief as the verdict saw a panel of 11 judges reveal their 9-2 decision that “Stairway to Heaven” was in fact not a copyright infringement of the Spirit song.
Those chords are instantly recognisable, and not surprisingly “Stairway To Heaven” has topped the list of many a “Best Rock Songs Ever Written” article, with many heralding it as the band’s greatest song. The song alone is estimated to have grossed $3.4 million USD during the five-year period that was at issue in the earlier civil trial.
Many have been quick to note that the win for Led Zeppelin also extends to the music industry as a whole. Having seen a number of copyright infringement cases over the years, the court’s decision could be useful in future cases.
As The Guardian suggests, these days it seems we are quick to use the phrase “plagiarism”, when the reality is that in creative fields like music and art and even literature, influences converge with the emerging sounds of that period. As the publication suggests, “Copyright rulings should not be so draconian that they inhibit the creative process. Sometimes a kind of music or thinking is a common cultural resource; its inflections and idioms can subconsciously influence and inspire an age, a moment or a mood.”